For the British, “tea” is an absurdly complex word. It is laden with meaning and nuance, and how you deploy it will, in certain circles, say more about you than you might like. Most obviously, it is, supposedly, our national drink.
I can’t abide tea at any price, but steeped leaves from China, India and other parts of east Asia and Africa make a beverage that is inextricably linked with us: nearly two-thirds of us drink it daily, while our cousins in Ireland are the second-highest consumers per capita in the world.
The drink, and the ceremonies which surround it, are woven into our culture. “A nice cup of tea” is the British panacea; cricket stops for tea; we use “tea breaks” as a catch-all for any kind of rest period; and meeting for “a cup of tea” can actually encompass all sorts of beverages, but it is tea which is the default setting.
This being Britain, it is also riven with class distinctions. Earl Grey (named after an aristocrat, no less) is probably the stereotypically “posh” blend—not unreasonably, as it was presented as a gift to the author of the Great Reform Bill and first advertised and sold on Jermyn Street—while, at the other end of the spectrum, we refer to “builder’s tea” as the cheap brew made from a teabag (no loose leaves) and flavoured with milk and sugar which is supposedly favoured by labourers and artisans.
(True story: when, as a new recruit, I was being shown round parliament, a senior House of Lords official offered us tea. I said I didn’t drink it, but would welcome a cup of coffee. She blinked at me in incomprehension, then agreed to my request, saying “I suppose you want sugar in it as well”, as if I had confirmed her worst fears of all those who worked in the Commons.)
Central to our consumption of tea is afternoon tea. It is a 19th century custom, developed by the upper classes to bridge the gap between lunch and a dinner which was moving later and later in the evening. However, it quickly became seen moreover as an opportunity for the kind of formalisation and ritual which the British crave as ways to guide them through social interaction.
We all have a rough idea of what is involved: besides tea, there are neat, crustless sandwiches, small cakes and pastries, and occasionally scones with jam and cream. For the more hard-living, champagne can accompany or replace the tea; certainly, before I stopped drinking, that made the prospect to me much more enticing.
Most importantly, afternoon tea should be a treat. It is, after all, a habit handed down by duchesses and countesses, and in calorie intake terms it is wholly unnecessary. Most of us can survive between lunch and dinner without flagging hypoglycaemically. It is good for a group of mixed ages and habits; hard drinkers can have the fizz, elderly relatives can enjoy the delicacies then retire, while the young and socially promiscuous can alight briefly on its lilypad before hopping away to their next engagement.
Where should one go, then, for a really good afternoon tea? Fortnum and Mason, the nonpareil of grocers, put on a good spread in elegant surroundings on Piccadilly, though one is always aware, however vaguely, of dining in a corner of a bustling shop. Not far along the street, the Wolseley is first-class for spotting celebrities, and any venture beyond its doors feels like a treat. The shade of AA Gill is never far away.
Any of London’s great hotels will offer a genteel and refined experience: the Ritz is really hard to beat for old-fashioned glamour, the Rosewood’s Mirror Room gives a modernist and avant garde vibe, while the Goring is the Queen’s favourite hotel, more than which really needn’t be said.
For a quirkier experience, the Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea at the Sanderson is as much performance as provender, while chocolate fans can indulge a Charbonnel et Walker-themed treat at the May Fair Kitchen. The Delaunay, the Wolseley’s sister on Aldwych, will cater for your inner Viennese with a full-on Kaffeeklatsch experience. If the weather is fine and you want a dainty way to kick off a session, the Mercer Roof Terrace will let you sip (or glug) champagne as you gaze across the Square Mile’s rooftops.
Finally, if you have ever been enjoying your afternoon tea but thought “This would be so much better if people were naked”, then the obvious choice for you is High Tea and Tease. Unlikely as it may sound, this is exactly what you think, sandwiches, cakes and tea with the addition of burlesque. Far be it from me to judge, my friends, but if we really are in the new Roaring Twenties, I can’t see any other way to take tea, can you?